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Interview: We chat with Sam McGrath about Fractiv, what happened to Project Offset and more

It was a game project that was in the works at the biggest PC processor company in the world. Videos and screenshots of the game, code named Project Offset, generated a ton of excitement among PC gamers who saw it. And yet the project from developer Offset Software never came to pass as Intel canceled the project earlier this year.

What happened to what could have been one of the most innovative PC games ever made? In his first interview since the shut down of Project Offset, the developer's founder Sam McGrath tells Big Download why Intel wanted to have a game development team in the first place, what Project Offset was really supposed to be about and why Intel finally canceled the game. He also gives us the final word on if the team was able to keep the rights to the game and its graphics engine, the formation of his new game developer Fractiv and much more.

First, you formed Offset Software some time ago after leaving S2 Games and launched into making both a game and a game engine. At the time what were your goals for the company and the game?

Forming my own game company was always a dream of mine, and having Travis and Trevor on board with me (two awesome artists) gave me the confidence that we could achieve something really cool.

We wanted to create an epic game experience in the form of a first person shooter set in a fantasy world, while at the same time create a new groundbreaking engine. We were being extremely ambitious to put it mildly, but felt sure that given the resources and ability to direct our own development team, that we'd be able to pull it off.

We managed to score a contract with a publisher that gave us enough funding for about 9 months of development. At the end of those 9 months we developed a graphically impressive, fully playable prototype, as well as developing core engine tech at the same time. Due to circumstances out of our control, the publisher we were working with decided to shift their company strategy in a direction that did not involve PC games, and our project was cancelled. Luckily, we had a very good contract with them that allowed us to retain the rights to our IP. If you're a developer reading this and thinking about getting into a prototype contract with a publisher, figuring out what happens with the IP if the project is dropped is extremely important, so make sure that's in there.

Many folks were surprised that Intel bought Offset Software. Can you give us any insight as to why Intel was interested in acquiring your company?

We started looking for other sources of funding after our prototype contract ended. Thanks to such a solid game demo and team, we received offers from several parties. Intel was one of the options we were looking at that didn't involve a traditional publisher. They initially approached us about some new graphics hardware they were working on called Larrabee, and explained that they were interested in working with developers to understand the needs of game development and what was important in a graphics card, as well as what features developers would like to see.

At some point someone at Intel decided that they should develop their own game engine that could become a Larrabee showcase, so they hired a team of people to do it. After a couple of months that team decided that acquiring an existing engine would be a more efficient way to do things, and so we were given an offer.

We were told that development on our game would continue, but that we would have to target it for Larrabee hardware. Rather than limiting us, it actually looked like an awesome opportunity, because we'd get to showcase some new tech and hopefully show people something they didn't think was possible in a game from an immersion and graphics perspective. Everyone was setting their sights very high. Had Larrabee worked out exactly as Intel had hoped, our game would have been the flagship title demonstrating their new tech, which would be a huge thing. (Think Microsoft and Halo...)
Aside from a couple of demo movies and a few screenshots and concept artwork, little was shown about the game during its time at Intel. Can you go over briefly what the game was supposed to be about?

The original vision might be summed up as a fantasy version of Call of Duty. CoD has such perfect execution in terms of delivering that cinematic experience and we wanted to achieve that in a fantasy setting with dragons, trolls, goblins, siege vehicles, etc.

At Intel, we made some design changes to accommodate the size of the art team and marketing requirements. The single player was divided into episodes and our primary goal was to complete the first episode in time for the Larrabee launch.

When did you learn that Intel was going to shut down the Project Offset team and how did you feel about it at the time?

We had anticipated it many months before we got word. The hardware was falling behind and a timely launch seemed less and less likely. Given that our entire purpose was to highlight the hardware, it didn't make much sense to keep us there. We were given the official word a couple of months before GDC (2010).

It was obviously very frustrating because we had so much effort invested and made so many sacrifices along the way, but it was all out of our hands.

Looking back do you regret selling the company to Intel?

At the time, it was the best possible decision that we could have made, given the fact that our previous funding had fallen through, and that we had the opportunity to continue development of our game, and potentially ship it out to millions of customers. So no, I don't regret the decision at all. Obviously, I wish things could have worked out differently, with Larrabee successful and a title developed by Offset to go along with it. But that's life. You get your chips in good but the cards don't always fall your way.

In addition to the problems with Larrabee, Intel simply wasn't the best place for a game developer. The management structure, not having full control over how resources are allocated, and the periodic requests from other groups that would distract us from our primary goal of making a game, all those fears were realized in some form or other along the way. Still, you can't complain too much, because we all had jobs during a horrible economy. Intel isn't a half bad place to be when the country is weathering an economic storm.

We did some pretty amazing stuff while we were there, too. Our engine was really good. We developed first class tools and workflow to manage the extremely high fidelity content we were putting into the game. We developed an incredibly powerful visual scripting system. We were working directly with Mike Bunnell, who recently won an Oscar for his global illumination tech, to integrate his tech into the engine. We had a lightmap baking solution using it that cut down lightmap rendering time from several hours to 30 seconds, with completely real time integration on our "to do" list. Those are just a few examples of some of the tech that we actually had working in a real production environment.

Our artists spent countless hours creating environments, animations and characters for the game, and we're all very proud of what we accomplished. It's too bad that most of that stuff probably won't be seen by the general public, other than a couple of tech videos. (We released some tool videos, and 2 tech demos that we were required to do for an Intel conference highlighting Havok Destruction).

You and other Offset Software team members formed Fractiv after leaving Intel. Why jump right back into a new game development company so quickly?

Game development is fun, we like working together, and we like not having a boss. So it was a pretty easy decision to start fractiv. We are really excited about our current projects.

The first thing we wanted to do after founding fractiv was an iPhone game, because there is something so great about making and shipping a game without the hassle of a publisher. We think mobile development is a perfect vehicle for creating small projects and publishing them quickly.

We've already released our first effort, an arcade action game for the iPhone/iPad called Lane Splitter (www.lanesplittergame.com). We are hoping that we might be able to make enough money from small projects like these to drive us towards some of our longer term, more ambitious goals. We'll see if it works.

If people are interested in our company and want to support us, the absolute best way to do that right now is to purchase a copy of Lane Splitter from the App Store. Costs a buck. :) We'll be releasing an Android version, too, but it's not done yet.

Does Fractiv have the IP and the source code to Project Offset's engine and game or are those still in Intel's hands?

All of the Offset related stuff we developed prior to and during our stay Intel remains property of Intel. Prior to leaving and for a couple months after setting up fractiv, we were working with some good guys over there to set up a contract which would have allowed us to use the engine and continue development of the game. We were pretty excited about it, and even though development of the game wouldn't have continued right away, it would have been one of our long term goals as a company. Unfortunately, things fell through and despite some people's best efforts (on both sides), we didn't get the contract we wanted.

What can you tell us about Fractiv's first project at this stage of development?

As I briefly mentioned earlier, our first project is in fact already done and available for purchase right now! We made a really fun, addictive little arcade game for the iPhone and iPad (and Android soon) called Lane Splitter. We have an Android version in the works too which will be coming soon. It's the kind of game absolutely anyone can pick up and play. You're on a motorcycle and you have to dodge cars while going faster and faster. Super simple premise and design, but super fun. You can check out a gameplay vid at www.lanesplittergame.com

Lane Splitter was made really as a learning experience for us to get into mobile development, so we could create a polished game from start to finish in a short amount of time. The main project we have in the works right now is much bigger, though: an action RPG style game with a Western vibe tentatively titled "The Gunsmith". I say Western vibe, but there's some mysterious fantasy elements that work their way into the game, too. We've been making great progress and we'll be updating our site with screenshots and videos of the game once we have something ready to show.
Is The Gunsmith being made for the PC and/or console platforms and if so are you currently looking for a publisher for the game?

We are not actively looking for a publisher at this time. We are not announcing our target platforms for "The Gunsmith" yet. Check www.fractiv.com for updates and media.

When do you expect your new game to be released?

You can expect it to be released some time next year, but we are not committing to any firm release dates yet, as the project is still in its fairly early stages.

Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Fractiv and its plans for the future?

We're more motivated than ever to bring something really cool to the gaming public. We know how many people followed Offset, and we also know how many were disappointed when they heard the news of its cancellation. We hope that we'll be able to make it up to them with the games we'll be doing at fractiv in the future.

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